Whither Camden?

Having been to the Capital a few times in recent weeks, I thought I would write up my latest experience.  Last week I spent a couple of days in Camden, North London.  I haven’t spent much time in the borough since about 1984 when, as a teenager sporting a checked shirt and a pair of battered Dunlop Green Flash trainers, I remember purchasing a rare US punk import from a  shop on the main drag called Rhythm Records [I’ve still got it].  So, returning over quarter of a century later with my daughter in tow, I was interested to see what I made of it this time round.

Camden has long had a reputation as a slightly shabby, bohemian enclave.  You only have to recall the heady free-for-all atmosphere of ‘Withnail and I‘ to get a feeling for the kind of place it used to be – a more affordable version of Hampstead for the out of work, whisky-drinking, jobbing luvvie.  And so it has, like an ageing actor, traded on its previous reputation.  By the 1980s it was known primarily for its association with the north London band Madness, stamping its’ now Doc Marten clad feet to a new and more relevant beat.

The trouble with places associated with cultural ‘movements’ is that they tend to become out of date very quickly as the zeitgeist moves on to new, uncharted territories.  They also appear to lack the substance of a more ‘real’ district – one where real people actually live real lives outside of the narrow world of shops, pubs and live music venues.

In the 1980s, as the bright flashes of Punk and Ska faded and the famous market became flooded with cheap, nasty tourist tat, the people who had made the area’s name found that the wealth they had amassed through selling youth culture enabled them to move to bigger houses in less edgy areas such as Primrose Hill and St John’s Wood: perfect for bringing up the children and thank heavens there’s a Waitrose there!

Yes, we all have to grow up, and Camden’s problem is that it serves as an interface between the inner city [the perpetually dodgy King’s Cross area] and the up hill leafy suburbs [the already mentioned Hills and Woods].  For those talented, artistic types who gave us Channel 4 and the Guardian in our hallowed youth, it must have seemed the ideal pad.  Live music venues such as Dingwalls and the Roundhouse created the correct buzz, and dodging drunks and punks on the pavements doesn’t bother you so much when you are young, free and single.  To those for whom the true inner city edginess of Brixton was a little too real, it was an address that awarded just the right amount  of credibility.

But incomers who treat a place as a temporary stopping-off point while climbing the greasy pole do not a community make.  The ‘real’ inhabitants of Camden, even in the late 60s, were largely not going to be nascent media darlings.  More than likely most of them had never seen a television.  Remember the pub scene in the aforementioned Withnail, which, although it was actually not filmed in Camden [the actual pub used was in Westbourne Green, and you can see Trellick Tower in the background, which is way out west], was classic poor London.  Old chaps with grey clothes and flat caps populating a drab old boozer sipping pints of Mild, whilst the token psychotic Irishman guzzled his Guinness.  Change was hanging heavy in the air as the decades changed: the film bore testament to the start of the slide from old London to new London.

Camden was a destination for a lot of the poor slum dwellers displaced by the large scale demolition of the unfit housing in the Kings Cross area.  The transient Irish population, which came and went via the Bus Eirann service from Cork to Victoria Bus Station, spread from Kilbun to Camden as an invisible layer of unlicensed labourers sharing tatty bedsits.  This is the part of Camden nobody really saw.  Except now, it is people from every nationality jostling to survive in the concrete council estates conveniently hidden away from the main roads.

So what of Camden now?  It’s a  district linked to the ‘counter culture‘, according to the guide books.  The nostalgia of the Skinhead, Mod and Punk eras has now been recognised as  a powerful marketing theme.  As London has become the most important city in the world, so its residents have looked to the past to find ways to make money.  Ironically, what used to be frowned upon is now cool.  Aging punks pose for photographs with tiny Japanese girls toting big cameras.  Union Jacks feature everywhere – once a symbol of the British far right, now a symbol of a country that is confused about what it stands for.

Some things still stay the same – tucked away behind the tube station is Holts shoe shop, still trading after 160 years and selling the most English of footwear, the Doc Marten boot [although you need to make sure, like me, that you buy the ones made in Northampton, not the ones made in China].  Scrawls on the wall turn out to be messages from visiting counter-culture luminaries: Charlie Harper from the UK Subs, Bedders from Madness.  Charles Dickens, a one-time resident of the Borough, clearly didn’t make his shoe purchases here.

The impression that stuck with me:  this Borough is two distinct places.  One is a superficial facade designed for fleecing the tourists – something London has always been good at – but the other, unseen aspect is the hidden, turbulent and transitory place; a Camden which consists of poor housing, an unsettled population of  people struggling to get by, of dumped rubbish and sink schools with metal detectors at the gates.  I guess that this is the nature of London these days: perhaps it is actually most large cities.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing.  Certain parts of the city have successfully re-invented themselves for the 21st Century and have shed their old connotations, such as much of the East End.  Shoreditch used to be known for bleak skinhead thuggery, whereas quarter of a century later it is one of the hipper parts of town.  But in the same way, you cannot help but get the impression that Camden has tried to trade on what it used to be, not what it would like to be.  You go to the East to see what is new and happening; you go to Camden to see an increasingly blurred representation of what was. 

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One response

  1. 'H'

    A very astute observation on Camden and I agree with much of it.
    As a 50 year old, born in and still working in London, I have to say that ‘My’ London is long gone. Nearly everything has moved on and not,in my opinion, for the better.
    London is a place for young adults and their music,politics,outlook and whatever…and probably always has been.

    April 28, 2011 at 8:06 am

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